dept | resources | glossary | credits | feedback | help | search

The Harriet and Robert Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health

intro | relationship to health | key standards, actors & venues | forms of work | role of the US | conclusion


This module is one of a series of building-blocks self-learning modules designed for students within the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health.

Students are expected to complete these modules in advance of their entry into a course of studies within the department.

Satisfactory completion of the module requires passage of an online examination with a score of 80% or better. Should you receive a score below 80%, please contact Lynne Loomis-Price at, so that your test may be reset.

It should take you approximately three hours to complete the module. The outside links included in the module are for your information and interest. For the online examination, you are only responsible for the information provided in this module, please make sure you also read the glossary. Although there is no time limit on the exam, CourseWorks times out after three hours.  You should plan to complete the test in one sitting; it does not allow you to save some answers and return later to finish.

You will need to log into Columbia University 's CourseWorks System to take the exam. You will need your UNI and password to log in. If you do not know your UNI and password, there are links at the bottom of the CourseWorks page that will explain what your UNI is and how to activate it.

Please make sure your internet browser is set to allow pop-up windows.

Purpose: why human rights for public health practitioners?

Human rights as a way of making demands for human well-being, dignity, equality and freedom have emerged as powerful tools in the contemporary world at many different levels.

As outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, human rights are legal promises made nationally and internationally by governments about how they will treat people under their control in order to ensure their dignity, freedom and equality. Human rights are also:

  • A system of claims made with reference to common laws and standards. In this system is a promise of accountability and a dynamic of claiming and response
  • Intended to address not only unjust things, but the structures of power that keep unjust things the way they are in our societies
  • Constantly evolving because of struggles and the creation of new claims and standards

Public health professionals working today will encounter human rights claims in many different guises; indeed, to the extent that public health is “what we as a society do collectively to ensure the conditions in which people can be healthy” [Institute of Medicine, 1988] public health and human rights have many points in common, yet the practices, tools, and training of each world differ, and on-the-ground and policy encounters between health and rights often confront gaps or actual or perceived conflicts.

This module seeks to familiarize public health students with some key principles, perspectives, practices, actors and challenges in human rights, so that they can better understand how their work connects to human rights, and ensure that the practice of public health is consistent with greater social goals of human well-being, equality and freedom.

However, because human rights as a practice and as a set of standards is itself dynamic, contested, and evolving at every level, this module also seeks to suggest the places of tension and change within rights work.

This is an introduction to key terms and practices, not a full course on human rights. For every term, one can find other definitions; for every principle, a set of corollaries and challenges that elaborates or limits the principle; for every claim one can find some place where the claim is disputed. Thus, this is only the beginning of the discussion, but what follows are some core concepts, key terms and legal facts that provide a basis for us to begin a discussion.

Learning objectives

By the time you will have completed this module you will be able to identify:

  • Key actors in the field of human rights at the local, national and international levels
  • Key venues where human rights activity takes place
  • Some elements of the analytic frameworks linking health and human rights
  • Some basic principles of human rights
  • Core concepts and definitions of key words in human rights
  • Why and how human rights are relevant to the US


Table of Contents


The Relationship Of Human Rights To Health

Key Standards, Actors And Venues

Forms Of Human Rights Work

The Role Of The US In Human Rights

Glossary Of Key Concepts

Additional Resources


continue to... The Relationship of Human Rights to Health


Photo Credit: Carol Guzy,
Washington Post

Mailman School of Public Health